Few nations in history have produced more mad scientists than the USSR. We’re going to spend plenty of time plumbing the depths of Soviet insanity here on Mad Scientist Blog, so it only seems fitting to begin our exploration with Bolshevism’s earliest oddball intellectual: Alexander Bogdanov.
A trained physician and master theoretician, Bogdanov began his career as a Marxist ideologue, and wound up creating a body of work so staggeringly pretentious, it transcended all known bounds of philosophy and science. In the process he lay the groundwork for cybernetics and systems theory, pioneered the genre of Soviet science fiction, and inadvertently established a Russian tradition in blood science.
Sound like a mouthful? Bogdanov’s career defies easy characterization. Any attempt to understand the man must engage him at his own level, which, as you might have guessed, is really way the fuck out there.
Our story begins on Mars, the red planet, where a socialist utopian technocracy has put an end to virtually all life’s problems. Mechanical efficiencies have eliminated the need for grunt labor, and all sentient work is of the organizational/scientific variety. Martians spend their free time either working, or in art museums, soberly contemplating their newfound structural unity. And they’ve got plenty of time to kill too, since blood transfusions between the young and the old have gloriously prolonged their lifespan.
This is the setting for Bogdanov’s novel, Red Star. Though it’s pure Soviet science fiction (the first of its kind no less), he devoted his entire life to turning this techno-communist dreamscape into reality. While others were busy turning Marx into revolution, Bogdanov took an honest stab at turning Marx into science.
He invented tektology, the study of organizational systems, in an attempt to put socialism on a more empirical footing. Tektology views the world as a network of interrelated systems. Systems can range from microscopic (i.e. atoms, cells, chemical reactions) to larger than life (i.e. governments, societies, civilizations). While systems may differ in both their complexity and degree of organization, they are all governed by rules that are fundamentally mathematical in nature.
The goal of tektology then, is to formulate the abstract rules that govern the organization of all systems. In doing so, Bogdanov believed we’d be able to reason about the organization of society with the same level of precision we can reason about physics. He saw this as an extension of the “scientific socialism” of Marx and Engles, which argued for a materialist conception of history but was sketchy on the details.
Some have posited tektology as a prototype for modern day cybernetics and systems theory, an obscure Marxist influence on the generalizing sciences. But that’s not giving Bogdanov enough credit. Tektology not only predated these schools by several decades, but according to scholars like Geoge Gorelick, “[it's] the most comprehensive and universal of them all.”
While cybernetics is a framework for understanding machines, tektology is a framework for understanding everything: art, philosophy, technology, politics, biology, consciousness. Philosophical constructs like mind-body dualism are explained as the transfer of master/servant relations into the domain of abstract thought. Societies are imbued with the principles of single celled organisms.
It’s hard to think of a more ambitious project being undertaken by any individual. Bogdanov believed his work would close the gap between philosophy and science, and bring about a new age of organizational enlightenment.
But his liberal interpretations of Marxist philosophy managed to piss off some pretty important people, including Lenin, his one-time collaborator. By the time he completed his three volume magnum opus Tektology: The Universal Organizational Science in 1922, Bogdanov had long been ostracized from the Bolshevik party’s inner circle. His political influence had all but withered away.
Bogdanov was never able to get the resources necessary to develop and test his theories. Instead, he devoted himself to an ill-conceived series of blood transfusion experiments that would eventually result in his own death.
Like the Martians in Red Star, Bogdanov was convinced that life could be radically extended through the comradely exchange of bodily fluids. In his socialist utopia, new blood would literally replace the old; “a comeradely vital exchange that goes beyond ideology to the physiological sphere.” His Russia of the future: a giant Soviet super-organism whose heart pumped a singular red blood.
According to blood transfusion researcher and historian Douglas Huestis: “He had read some protozoology, and noted how certain unicellular organisms benefit by mutual fusion and an interchange of protoplasm. In a staggering leap [emphasis added], Bogdanov theorized that humans could do likewise.”
Bogdanov’s “scientific” reasoning here, would sound patently absurd to anyone who hadn’t spent the last 10 years of their life attempting to develop a unifying theory of everything.
Nevertheless, after Lenin’s death he was somehow able to convince Stalin to (meagerly) fund his experimental program. In 1926 the Soviet Institute for Blood Transfusion took up residence in a leaky Moscow mansion, crammed in with a few live-in tenants and another institute devoted to the study of Lenin’s brain.
In 1928 Bogdanov suffered a hemolytic transfusion reaction and died, following a “comradely exchange” between himself and a sick student.
After Bogdanov’s death however, the institute remained in operation. By the mid-30s there were blood centers across the country, and the Soviet Union became the first nation to implement a centralized blood bank system. Their scientists eventually began to understand the importance of blood type, and experimented with anticoagulants in order to extend the lifespan of their stores.
While his theories may have been naive, Huestis makes a case for Bogdanov as the father of Soviet hematology and transfusion science. I on the other hand prefer to think of him as the father of Soviet mad science. In the early days of Marxist-Leninism when revolutionaries of all sorts had their heads in the clouds, this guy’s head was on another planet.
A precise and clinical welcome to you Aleksandrovich! You’re in good company.